FEATURE: An Interview with John VanDyk of Covered Bridge Brewing Company

Jon VanDyk, owner & brewer of Covered Bridge Brewing Company

In case you didn't notice, craft beer is blowing up in Ottawa, with the opening of several new breweries, expansions of existing facilities and even our own growler delivery service. Much of the action is happening just outside of Ottawa, but since we're sharing an area code we're still pretty excited to hear about new beer!

To help you, the craft beer fan, keep track of who's opening what, where and when, we'll be running a series on upcoming breweries and the people behind them. Some are at the point of being able to open, others are knocking on doors trying to get funding or supervising their brewery being built from the ground up.

This week we interviewed Jon VanDyk, owner and brewer of Covered Bridge Brewing Company in Stittsville, Ontario (about 25 minutes from downtown Ottawa). After a few months of delays he's almost ready to open (much to the delight of those in the west end).

Ottawa Beer Events: Tell us a little about yourself, the beer you brew and your (upcoming) brewery.
John VanDyk (Covered Bridge Brewing Company): I graduated from UVic with a BSc in Microbiology/Biochem.  When I moved out to Ontario to do post graduate studies in complementary medicine, I met my wife while in school and ended up staying out here.  We had a practice for a while but then my wife was offered a job with the government, we moved to Ottawa and I started working for the government as well.  I started "brewing" when we were out shopping one day and saw a “Mr. Beer” kit.  My wife encouraged me to buy it, so I did.  I hadn't even fermented the first batch when I started looking around for additional kits.  After a bit of searching, I realized that they didn't actually sell the Mr. Beer mixes in Canada, which was a relief since the beer was awful. But that search led me to a local homebrew club.  I joined and was invited out to Merrickville to brew with a couple guys.  We did an American pale ale all-grain batch and I was hooked from that very first brew. I bought a turkey fryer to use as a kettle and all the bits and pieces to brew my own first batch.  My first solo batch was my double-double sweet stout.  It was pretty popular with my wife, who never drank beer, and with many friends. I've had to brew it several times since.  Ironically enough, before all this, I wasn't really much of a beer drinker.  Being exposed to home brewing and craft beer was a bit of a "beer awakening" for me and I learned that there are so many great beers with tons of flavour and complexity.  I'm still not a huge drinker, but I really enjoy finding and trying different craft beers now.
For my upcoming brewery, I plan to brew five main beers but I also want to be able to experiment and brew new, different beers.  Our main beers will be The Dirty Blonde, The Amber Rose, The Eternally Hoptimistic, The MSB, and The Double Double stout.  The Dirty Blonde is based on the American blonde style but using some British ingredients so it is a bit darker than the style calls for; a bit more malty and biscuity and has some fruity esters.  The Amber Rose is an American amber that definitely falls on the maltier side and leans towards the sweeter, more caramel end of the spectrum.  The Eternally Hoptimistic is probably one of my favourite beers.  It's an American Pale Ale with a lot of hop flavour and aroma.  The MSB is our American Brown.  The first time I brewed it, I had invited a bunch of friends over who wanted to learn about the brewing process. Our significant others were out enjoying a day at the spa while we barbecued, brewed and played poker, so we joked that we were having a "Man spa" day. And so was born the name "Man Spa Brown" or MSB for short.  The last of our main beers is the Double Double.  It's a sweet stout, so it has lots of body.  The dark malts give it notes of chocolate and coffee and but then I actually add chocolate and coffee to it, so I double up on those flavours.  It's a bit higher alcohol and pretty rich, so definitely not a session beer, but it is pretty popular with my non-beer drinking friends.  For our seasonals, I want to keep it open, surprise people and be able to try new flavours, new styles, and new combinations.  It should be fun!
I get asked a lot about the name of our brewery.  There aren't a lot of covered bridges in Ottawa (or Ontario for that matter).  I happen to live on a street that has a covered bridge on our walking path.  Homebrewers are funny in that we usually name our home breweries, so even before thinking about going commercial, I had chosen the name. A friend at work drew up the logo for me.  We liked the nostalgic feel of it so much that when we decided to go pro, we kept it.
Why did you decide to go pro and brew commercially?
I was working for the government and I got to the point that I really wasn't enjoying what I was doing.  I really loved my hobby of brewing though.  When the current government decided to make cuts and my wife and I learned that the area we worked it was going to be affected, she encouraged me to run the numbers and see if opening a brewery was feasible.  It turns out that it was and she was really supportive of me pursuing it.  I think most guys in the home brewing community will tell you that if/when your wife says you should open a brewery, you take that chance, and I did.
After working on this project for a while, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of other people in the craft beer industry and I have to say that it’s really refreshing to be working in an area where instead of being seen as competitors, everybody really tries to help each other out.  I’ve been offered so much assistance from both established and newly started brewers that it’s just blown me away.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Delays.  It seems that every time someone tells me something will be delivered on a specific date or work will be done in a certain amount of time, I need to double the estimated time.  When I first started this, I hoped to be open by late spring, then it was early summer, now I'm really hoping for before Christmas.
Strangely enough, I expected the federal and provincial licensing to be the biggest hurdles, but I've been pleasantly surprised with how easy both those organizations have been to deal with.  They've actually been really great to work with and unbelievably helpful.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start a brewery?
Make sure it's what you really want to do and make sure you have a great group of family and friends, like I do, that will support you through it.  I think with the way the craft beer scene is exploding, there are people that think a brewery is a license to print money.  When I ran the numbers, it showed me that I probably won't get rich doing this, in fact I would have made more money if I stayed in my government job. But this is a job I look forward to going to everyday.
If everything goes as planned, when will we be able to have a pint of your beer?
We are not able to run at full capacity yet, but we do have three full fermentors.  I plan to transfer those beers to the brite tank in the next week or so and then to kegs.  We'll probably open for growler sales within the next couple weeks with a limited selection of our beers and hopefully be getting into full production right around the same time.  My goal is to see our beers in some local bars and restaurants by mid-December.  We look forward to having people come by the brewery, check it out and pick up a growler.

Keep up to date with Covered Bridge Brewing Company by following them on Twitter (@CBBeer) or by following them on Facebook (The Covered Bridge Brewing Company Inc).

We'll be featuring an up-and-coming brewery every Tuesday for the next couple of weeks – check back to see what you can look forward to drinking in the near future!

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